A family, a people

Small Carolina town

Throwback general store

Both my boys looking at the comics

Side by side

Yet the sharp “What’chu doin’, boy?”

Is not directed at the two,

Just the one,

My child with dark skin.

Years before,

Sitting in a crowded Ugandan church

Watching his tiny self

Dance in the aisles,

I wondered,

What are we doing—

Giving him a family

But displacing him from a people?

When he was small, our conversations about race

Were easy.

He called himself chocolate,

The rest of us vanilla,

In high summer, I became

Milky coffee.

Now, though, they are harder.

How to explain to him,

To his sisters and brother,

That the odds facing them

Are not exactly equal?

That what we’ve told them—

Human is human. Period.—

Is not a reality out there

And King’s dream

Is still a dream.

And underneath all this,

Even now,

the question haunts me:

We’ve become a family

But what about his people?


I thought this post could use a little lift. This was a fun, impromptu moment in Target when PJ saw this awesome Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jacket!

I thought this post could use a little lift. This was a fun, impromptu moment in Target when PJ saw this awesome Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jacket!

Our fourth child was born in Uganda. His mother died of AIDS; his father was estranged and never met him till we began the adoption process. In many miraculous ways God made it very clear that we were to adopt our son. But even as I worked in Africa to get legal guardianship, I wondered about the issues he would face growing up as an African child in a white family, in a predominately white area, in a country where the color of your skin still determines a lot. Racial reconciliation takes on a whole new level of importance when you have a child who is a different race. When I read about the horrifically high numbers of African American men in prison; when I learn that five times the number of African American babies are aborted compared to white babies; when I hear that an African American college professor in the town just two over from mine has been stopped by police more than 20 times in the last couple years just so they could “see what

I couldn't resist posting this one, too!

I couldn’t resist posting this one, too!

he was up to”… I think, “This is what’s facing my son,” and I ask God how I am meant to draw attention to this injustice, how I am meant to fight it—both for my own son and the sons and daughters of other women.

And under all this, I still fear the effects on my son of growing up without a community that looks like him.

What not to say to an adopted child: my list

Finally a good picture of all of us. This is Dave and I with Judy and Kelly (our international student "daughters"--their real mom and dad live in Hong Kong and love them very, very much), Emily, the twins Jake and Maddie, and PJ. Honestly, it's usually the boys who mess up family shots. (Stand still for a picture if I'm not posing as a professional soccer player or bodybuilder? What's up with that?)

Finally a good picture of all of us. This is Dave and I with Judy and Kelly (our international student “daughters”–their real mom and dad live in Hong Kong and love them very, very much), Emily, the twins Jake and Maddie, and PJ (Patrick).

Not long ago, one of our elementary school principals sent a letter to every adoptive family in the school. “We want to meet your child’s and family’s needs,” he wrote. “Can you let us know any ways we are not doing that as well as ways we can do that better?”

I appreciated the question, though nothing came to mind right away. The school is filled with caring teachers and administrators who celebrate adoption and try to integrate multi-cultural literature and projects. They’re not committing any of the obvious insensitivities. But then I thought of a couple of less obvious things, and as I wrote them down, my heart began to pound. These are more important to me than I realized, I thought.

I know every adoptive family and every adopted child have their own particular struggles, so what I wrote to our principal will not apply to all adoptive situations, but I’m sharing because many of you know or will know a family who adopts or fosters, and this may give you an inside look at some of their less obvious struggles.

  1. We’re really open to talking about PJ’s background with him. It’s clear he’s adopted, so we don’t avoid that topic when he brings it up (sometimes we even initiate it). When he asks about his birth parents and brothers, we speak openly and positively about them, and we allow him to talk about them, even when he’s going through a stage (which has happened a couple times) of kind of wishing that he were with his birth dad (who has AIDS; PJ’s mom died of AIDS when he was just an infant). We don’t say anything like, “Hey, we’re your parents. We’re the ones raising you. We’re your REAL mom and dad.” We don’t want teachers and others to say that either. It’s both okay and normal for PJ to wrestle with that, and even though I think most people’s natural instinct is to say, “But look at the family you have now, the mom and dad you have now–they’re your real family,” I don’t think that helps the kid to process the fact that he’s not with the family he was born into, that for one reason or another, his family life (and his entire culture) is different. If someone is not really, really, really close with an adoptive child and his/her family, then I think there is no place for saying something like, “You need to be grateful for the family you have.” Even if that’s a mostly true statement, chances are that the adoptive child is wrestling with a lot more than simply an ungrateful spirit.
  2. We don’t think of what we did—adopting—as anything special or heroic. For us, it was a really clear call from God and it would have been disobedience for us NOT to do it. Patrick is an incredible gift to US, not the other way around. I’ve had people say to me, “What a wonderful thing you did for him,” and, honestly, it makes me angry because I can’t imagine how that would feel if my son ever heard someone say that to me, like I loved him because he was a charity case. The truth is that God showed us PJ was meant to be ours. He planted him in our hearts as our child, and we adopted him simply to make that official. He’s ours; therefore, we love him. I don’t want Patrick to be presented with the idea that he is privileged to be our son. The truth is, we are privileged to be his parents, just as we are privileged to be the parents of all our kids.
  3. I KNOW adoption is a beautiful picture of God bringing us into full “son-ship,” with the same status as a biological child—and that’s absolutely incredible—but the analogy on an individual level can, like in my second note, send the message to the adopted child that he/she was being done a favor. It also emphasizes the differences between biological children in a family and adopted children in a family. I think an adopted child needs to be a certain age or of a certain understanding to be able to see this on a spiritual level without correlating it to his/her own situation.
  4. Anything that emphasizes that difference between the adopted child and biological children should be avoided. Examples would be talking with an adopted child (or talking with someone in the family in front of the adopted child) about how much their siblings look like each other or how one of their siblings looks like mom or dad. (Several years ago when Em was 8, the twins 5, and Patrick 4, we were all together, and I mentioned that someone at church had commented on how much Em and Jake (one of the twins) look alike while the twins look nothing like each other. Oddly enough, if was the other twin, Maddie, who was bothered by this. “Well,” she said, “I look like somebody, too. Patrick and I look just alike. Don’t we, Patrick?” He was really small then and just nodded, but I realized that if Maddie minded being told she didn’t look much like her siblings, then that could really be an issue for PJ.)

*If you are reading this as an adoptive parent or adopted child, and you have an idea to share, I would really love to read your response. Please, please leave a comment below. It will not be posted on the blog; I’ll receive it as an email.

Being “Mom”

*An audio recording of this piece is at the bottom of the post.

Weariness is an unavoidable byproduct of motherhood—no matter how committed you are to it.

A few weeks ago, at the check-in desk for Women’s Bible Study at church, I filled out my nametag next to a young mom with a preschooler perched on her hip. She pressed the tag onto her sweater. “Mommy,” her little girl said, pointing a forefinger at it.

“Well, I’m also ‘Julie,’” her mother told her.

“No, no ‘Julie,’” the preschooler protested. She jabbed the nametag again. “Mommy.”

Her mother smiled, a tired smile.

And I wondered if she felt, in that moment, as if she’d lost any identity other than “Mommy.” But then I thought that perhaps I was projecting my own sometimes fear that my children will lock me into the “mom box” and throw away the key. I remembered a recent conversation with them. Someone had been complaining about having to go to school, and I decided not to say, yet again, “Remember that in many countries, children would jump at the chance to go to school.”

Instead I said, “I would love to go back to school.”

Their looks condemned me to the loony bin. “I would!” I told them. “I keep looking at these two programs of study and thinking about applying.”

They didn’t even consider it.

“You can’t go back to school,” one of them said. “You’re our mom!”

Yet God does something supernatural in our hearts when we become mother to a child.

I was volunteering at a World Relief job class for immediately-arrived refugees. A young woman approached me, a mock application in her hands. She pointed to the question at the bottom of the form. “Children? Yes or No.” I put my hand, palm-down, a couple feet from the floor. “Little ones. Children. Do you have children?” She nodded. “Yes, I have.” She cradled her arms and rocked them back and forth. “A baby?” I asked. She nodded again. Then, “In my country. Baby there.” Her friend, from the same country but even younger, stepped forward. “She is mother there. Not mother here.”

I nodded and kept my face smooth, but my heart cried out in protest. No! I thought. We carry our children in our hearts. She is a mother here and everywhere. It is a gift of God, but when our children are lost or hurt or rebellious, it rips our hearts apart.

We forget at times the greatness of this gift, but moments of ferocious love remind us.

As I made my way down the hall of my children’s elementary school, a first grader walking past said, “Hey, you’re PJ’s step-mom.”

Something flared up, red and hot, in my chest. I blocked it from rising up my throat, from coloring my voice. “No-o-o, I’m not.”

“Oh, yeah,” the little guy continued, “not step-mom, adoption mom, right?”

I was well past him by then, so he didn’t hear my response.

“Just ‘Mom,’” I whispered. “I’m his mom.”

In honor of my son on St. Patrick’s Day

Patrick and Maddie chasing down a ball during a fierce game of soccer at my sister's house last fall.

Patrick and Maddie chasing down a ball during a fierce game of soccer at my sister’s house last fall.

St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal in Chicagoland–but that’s not why Patrick, our son, was named that. He was tiny, nameless, and very sick when he was rescued by Mercy Childcare in the spring of 2007 (the link takes you to the webpage, but on the page is a link to Mercy’s Facebook page, which is updated often with great pics). In a phone conversation between the dear people at Mercy and Sarah, one of their staunchest supporters here in west Chicagoland, Sarah’s daughter suggested they name him “Patrick” after of one of her friends at school.

Wilfred Rugumba, the vibrant young director of Mercy Childcare, with his wonderful wife, Vena, and their two sons. They're still rescuing!

Wilfred Rugumba, the vibrant young director of Mercy Childcare, with his wonderful wife, Vena, and their two sons. They’re still rescuing!

Not quite two years later Patrick officially became an Underwood–though he was in our hearts long before that. We pray that he, like the saint he shares a name with, will love the Lord with all his heart, soul, and mind and will use his incredible talents and gifts to love his neighbors as himself.

So, in honor of both Patricks, I share this prayer of the bold Englishman who returned to the land where he once lived as a slave to share the power and love of Christ.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.


suburban gratitude

Dave bought me this sign for Christmas and I hung it in our family room. I think (I hope) it describes us well.

Dave bought me this sign for Christmas and I hung it in our family room. I think (I hope) it describes us well.

I’m working on chapters three and four of our adoption story, so I spent a couple hours this morning sorting through emails I sent out during 2008 and 2009. Some of those were specifically about adoption matters: court dates and home studies and official documents, but many others were simply newsletters about our family.

Em was seven and Jake and Maddie about three and a half in the earliest updates (January 2008); the last one I read was written six months after Patrick and I came home from Uganda (September 2009). I wrote about funny things they said (like when Maddie was pretending to be Jake’s mommy until Jake, fed up with bottles and blankets, ran away from her, crying, “I all growed up now, Maddie. I not a baby any more”). I wrote about daily routines that I’d forgotten, like Patrick coming home on the preschool bus in Kansas. He would bring his backpack inside, tell me to “Close eyes, Mommy,” and then show me each paper he’d worked on that morning, one by one. Then we read his new library book—they went every day—TWICE. And all this before lunchtime. I wrote about life lessons they were learning, like when Em got the teacher she did NOT want and her words three weeks into the school year: “Mom and Dad, you were right. I think God did want me to have Mrs. Farney. I really like her.”
The emails made me a little sad. Those times are gone, and life with my kids isn’t so simple anymore. It’s not full of long Saturdays spent at home or morning playtimes at the park. They’re growing up and away—just as they should be—but I was suddenly a little nostalgic.
And I was also grateful—for something I don’t think I’ve ever before been grateful for. I was thankful for all the driving, the times in the car, the back and forth to this activity and that practice that consumes so much of my life these days.
Usually this is one of the things I hate most about life in suburbia. Twenty-minute drive here, thirty there, another fifteen…
But my kids are captive in the car—right there with me, right there with each other. And we talk about our days and we listen to good books (yay for audio books), and we sing, and we spend time together, and they can’t escape, and I can’t get all busy with housework or writing projects. And when it’s me and just one of the kids, we get quiet, let’s-really-find-out-what’s-going-on time.
Hmm. Maybe there are other things on my “hate” list that I can learn to be thankful for.

Remembering the Miracles

the Underwood fam, summer 2012

the Underwood fam, summer 2012

A few weeks back I wrote a piece for our church’s newsletter about how we adopted our son, PJ. Writing it in such a short form reminded me of what an amazing story it is, so I’m sharing it with all of you.

Miracle 1: In 2007 a high school student went on a church mission trip to Uganda. She was so touched, she convinced her parents to let her go back—alone—two days after her high school graduation. Miracle 2: A Ugandan mother, Eva, dying of AIDS, managed to keep her infant son alive even though she dared not nurse him for fear of passing on her disease. Miracle 3: After her death her friends took the 9 pound, 15-month-old baby to Mercy House orphanage. Miracle 4: The high school student, Jody Schwartz (now Hoekstra), arrived in Uganda the day after Eva’s dying baby was taken to Mercy. Jody asked if she could try to save the baby’s life, and she did.

The miracles kept coming. Seven months later, I went on our church’s 2008 mission trip to Uganda. I spent a lot of time with Jody and the little boy she’d named Patrick, and thoughts of adoption began creeping into my mind. One night on the trip, I prayed, “Lord, if You want this, please talk to Dave about it. I don’t want to adopt this child based on my desire alone.” The night after I returned home, Dave said, “While you were gone, God kept bringing Patrick to my mind. I think we should pray about adopting him.”

Still more miracles happened. When Patrick’s biological father, Abusolom, was discovered to still be alive, we were advised to abandon the adoption, but Abusolom, weak with AIDS and unable to care for his other children, was glad to hear Patrick would be in a family (this is truly a miracle!). The U.S. approval was completed in record time, and I flew to Uganda exactly one year after my first trip. Five weeks later, after Orphanage Director Wilfred and I witnessed countless miracles in the court process and with government officials, Patrick and I flew home.

And on February 13, 2009, all six of us Underwoods were together for the first time.


NOTE: It’s been finals week–ugh!–which is why I haven’t blogged lately. This post is the piece I wrote for my final writing class assignment (also this week). It’s about my time in Uganda but probably won’t fit into  the book about Patrick’s adoption.


The pimply jackfruit sits on Vena’s knees like a second pregnant belly, the size of a basketball but misshapen, yellow-brown. The stink of rotten onions fills the small car—Vena picked it well—and Wilfred puts the windows down.

The look, smell—the dense weight—it would never sell in a U.S. grocery store, the muzungu thinks. But machete through the ugly rind and what a treasure. Pineapple-banana scent, warm yellow color, exotic tulip-shaped fruits nestled, jewel-like, in a yellow velvet pulp.

The muzungu peers her neck to catch fragments of the sky between the shacks, leaning buildings, trash heaps that crowd the narrow alleys and streets crisscrossing this hill-mountain. She shifts Patrick on her lap so he can see their upward climb. He points and jabbers, waves at children. Wilfred turns this way, that way—a fun maze without the fun.

At the very top is a flat space, with a large concrete building that looks as if a wrecking ball swung through it a few times but then gave up. Wilfred crunches to a stop on the rubble that is working its way out from the structure. Men, young and old, squat on the ground, sit on chunks of cement and in blown-out window ledges, stand around in small groups. It is a Sunday, but, judging by the looks of the area, this may be the scene every day of the week. Two young men approach as they get from the car, and Wilfred huddles with them, slips them some cash.

Vena hands Wilfred the jackfruit and leads, picking her way carefully in her Sunday shoes. Just over the crest of the hill, they see the slum, spilling down the side. Cast-off building materials poured from a giant dump truck, heaped up haphazardly into “homes.”

Vena nods at the women cooking over open charcoal fires, sitting on doorsteps feeding babies, hanging laundry. The muzungu follows her, clutching Patrick to her side as if he will somehow transform her white skin, her other-ness. She nods, too. Some women dip their heads, a couple even smile, but the men’s eyes are hard. The rare muzungu who comes here bears judgment or pity, neither of which builds a father’s sense of manhood.

I’m Alice, going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

No, that’s not quite intense enough.

The red dirt paths between the homes form channels for run-off from above. They are walking on the slick, smooth bank of a stream. The smell of waste grows stronger when the water pools, covers the vegetable scent from cooking pots. She copies Vena’s flat-footed, splayed-out steps, leans on buildings at tricky spots. If she had her arms free she could touch fingertips to the walls on both sides, elbow-to-elbow in some spots.

Down, down, down. The maze driving up the hill was nothing compared to this. How does Vena know where to go?

Then Vena stops.

“Uncle? Uncle?” she calls.

She ducks her head inside a doorway.

Excited chatter. A woman steps out, near the same age as Vena but looking older with her hair in a kerchief and her chest sloping like a soft hill all the way to her waist. She hugs Vena, pats one large, strong hand on Vena’s belly. Wilfred, who came down the hill behind the muzungu, stands by, holding the jackfruit, smiling.

Vena turns to the muzungu. “This is my cousin. We grew up together.”

The cousin tucks her head, but the muzungu reaches out for one of her hands, shakes it. The cousin’s head comes up, her eyes brighten.

“This is Jennifer. She is adopting Patrick,” Vena tells her. “She is living with us for awhile.”

The cousin motions them in. Their eyes adjust to the sudden dark. One room, no windows, though light filters in through a jagged hole high up in the wall, covered with a piece of cloth. One small, upholstered chair sits next to the door. Across from it two others are stacked, with a small coffee table perched on top. Vena takes the jackfruit from Wilfred, puts it on a shelf that holds a bag of rice, a bag of beans, and says something to him, tipping her head toward the chairs. Wilfred sets the coffee table in the center of the room and places the chairs around it.

“Jennifer, sit there.” Obediently the muzungu sits. Her knees touch the table. Patrick slides from her lap and stomps his feet, glad to be down. He beats his hands on the table.

There is a rustle just above the muzungu’s head. Halfway up the wall, the bricks jut in, forming a wide, deep alcove. A man sits up inside this, swings his legs over the side.

“Uncle!” Vena says. He slips down, one hand clutching his loose pants, the other holding his buttonless cardigan closed over his bare brown chest. He blinks but then recognizes Vena and begins chattering in Lugandan. The muzungu pulls up her feet so he can shuffle between the table and the chairs. Vena hugs him gently.

“Jennifer, this is my uncle.”

He turns to the muzungu, a smile splitting his wrinkled face. Cracked brown teeth fill the gap. Beside him Vena’s white teeth gleam. A picture perfect for toothpaste advertising.

Vena told the muzungu once that she, Vena, had such nice teeth because she had no sugar as a child. “We were lucky to get one meal a day,” she said. “No money for sweets.”

“So if a person has nice teeth, they were probably poor growing up?”

Vena shook her head. “They were poor AND their mamas cared about their teeth. The ones with teeth like…?” She pointed at her gums and looked at the muzungu.

“Stumps? Decayed?”

“Yes. Their mamas gave them sugar cane as babies. Cheap. Keeps them from fussing. Easier for the mama, but bad for the teeth.”

The uncle settles in his chair, the one near the door. Wilfred stands, uncertain, until the young cousin pulls a wooden stool out from against the wall. She and Vena hold a hushed conference, and the cousin slips past the door cloth.

They talk, the voices up and down, laughter tinging. Patrick moves down the table, wiggles his way between the uncle’s knees. The uncle asks Patrick questions. More laughter.

The muzungu does not understand, but she smiles, watches, tries to look at the room without showing that she is. Labels—the plastic ones from 2-liter soda bottles—have been fastened to the wall. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Mountain Dew, Sundrop; a red, orange, purple, green, yellow patchwork. She watches the uncle’s hand rub Patrick’s head, answers the questions he asks her through Vena.

The cousin comes back with soft drinks, lukewarm in glass bottles, small cakes in cellophane packages. The muzungu hopes Vena gave the cousin money for this.

Is her reluctance to take—masked as guilt for their spending money on her—a way to separate? She remembers the story of the three Southern pastors, firm in their conviction that drinking alcohol was a sin, being offered beer by a pastor at an overseas conference. Two refused, one accepted. When the two later said, “How could you?” the other answered, “I thought one of us should act like a Christian.”

Translation: not separate, not better. Seeing past the outside, looking in.

The cousin pulls aside the doorcloth and sits on the stoop so she can talk to Vena and still greet passersby. A few stop to chat. A few try English with the muzungu. More laughter. The bright patchwork on the wall fades as the light changes. The cousin’s shadow stretches behind her.

Vena stands.

“No, Uncle, do not get up.” She leans down to hug him.

The muzungu steps over the table, stands near the uncle. “Good-bye,” he tells her. The cousin reaches for the muzungu’s hand, holds it for a moment before Vena leads them out.

Out to where sewage smell drifts up from the water in the path.

Just like jackfruit.

Ch. 6, Journey to Patrick

NOTE: Since I am back in my Chicago writing class, my book proposal on Patrick’s adoption is going through yet another set of revisions. The other day I actually got onto Facebook !!!! and connected with dear Angel, whom I lived with during the Ugandan part of Patrick’s adoption. She asked, “What have you done with that book you were working on in Uganda?” Well, here’s a little bit. This is chapter 6, which tells about my second trip to Uganda, the one I took to bring Patrick home. Heads up–it’s LONG!

With the other passengers I climb down portable metal steps to the ground. Even this late at night, the air is warm and a little sticky, but fresh, a welcome change from the canned air on the plane. Inside I breathe in the scent that all the developing-country airports I’ve been in seem to have, that mix of bodies, spices, and cultures un-sterilized by air conditioning. The bland colors on the walls and floors always seem to be at odds with the rich smells. Returning Ugandans, about half the flight, form lines on the right side of the room we enter, while the rest of us wait on the left to pay 55 U.S. dollars to get our entry visas. Most of the people around me are too tired to show much emotion, but excitement—and fear—makes my eyes roam the room, my feet tap.

At baggage claim I watch the luggage go round and round without any sight of my bags. “Wichita,” I growl and head towards the lost luggage office, where I fill out sheet after sheet of paperwork and spell my name a half dozen times for the man hen-pecking my information into an ancient computer.

It takes so long I begin to worry that Wilfred will think I missed my flight and leave me, but when I finally step into the waiting area, a small group is still there. Wilfred waves. I recognize him and Philip from last year, but the two women are unfamiliar.

The little boy held in Wilfred’s arms, though, is unmistakably Patrick. Wilfred ducks his head to him, whispering in his ear as I approach. Patrick’s face lights up. He smiles at me. I want to run straight to him and hug him tight. I have spent a year falling in love with this little boy, and I want to begin knowing him this very second.

But first come introductions. The small woman with the kerchief over her hair is Wilfred’s wife, Vena. The only time I saw her last year was at her wedding, resplendent in full makeup, a tall hairdo and a dress with a train. Now she is obviously pregnant. I hope she isn’t offended that I didn’t recognize her. The other woman is taller, with darker skin and eyes that flash with energy. When she says, “I’m Florence,” I remember a conversation Jody and I had a few months before. “I hope you can work with Florence,” Jody had said. “That would be good for her.”

I shake hands and hug. Then Wilfred holds Patrick out to me. I feel shaky. Will he come? He does. He is so light compared to the twins, even skinny Jake, and I press one hand gently on his back. He still seems fragile. I drop a kiss on his rough, tight curls. I breathe in his little-boy scent and the soap in his hair. I want to rub my hands down his beautiful chocolate arms, count his fingers, look at his face for a long time, but I resist. Now is not the time, but longing for it overwhelms me.

Someone hands me an international phone. “What’s this?” I ask.

Wilfred explains. It is the phone Aaron used in Uganda last year. Another of his and Jody’s housemates, Tyler Sjostrom (who was one of my 9th grade students a long time past), borrowed it when he came to Uganda a few weeks ago. Aaron told him to leave it here for me to use.

“We brought Tyler to the airport earlier tonight,” Wilfred tells me. “You just missed him. He was trying to wait and see you before he had to leave, but you were held up too long.”

I am touched by the loan of the phone and wish I’d been able to see Tyler. Despite the welcoming party, I feel very alone at this moment. Aaron’s surprise gift reminds me I have a host of people praying for me at home. I wish one of them was with me.

Wilfred leads the way to a small, four-door Toyota. It is on loan from his father. Florence, Vena, Patrick and I cram into the back seat of the car. Patrick perches on my lap. The drive from the Entebbe Airport to their house is dark and disorienting, and I struggle with the thread of conversation. The others slip into Lugandan every few sentences. Not only do I lack general context, every time they return to English, I feel I have dropped the thread. I rub circles on Patrick’s back, probably more to comfort myself than him.

For the first time I think about how tricky my living situation here may be. When Wilfred offered for me to stay with him, I thought mostly of his generosity—and, honestly, the money that would save us. I also thought it would be a good thing for me to get to know Patrick in surroundings comfortable for him. But right now I want to go to a guesthouse with him, just the two of us. That would be the most comfortable for me.

Instead I face a completely unknown situation, and I am afraid. Will I fit in with these women? Will I be able to work with Wilfred? Can I become Patrick’s mother without stepping on the toes of these people who have cared for him the past seven months? What am I doing here?

I am slipping into desperation. My body tingles and I rub my arms as if I can stop the tiny bugs from crawling under my skin. “Oh, God,” I silently pray, “I need to know You are right here with me, that Your promise to never leave me is really true.”

We draw near to the lights of Kampala and then turn away from them. All I can see from my spot in the middle of the back seat are roadside market stands, lit by strands of naked bulbs, and people, everywhere, gathered in groups, walking along the sides of the road, carrying loads on their heads or backs. When Wilfred makes a sharp turn and begins driving downhill on a very uneven road, the lights and traffic stop. Though I can tell buildings hover close by on either side, I cannot see much of them. Wilfred stops the car, and Philip gets out and opens a gate. We drive through and park in a courtyard surrounded on three sides by one-story concrete buildings.

Lights are still on in the building to the left of the gate. Vena knocks on the door. Someone on the other side fumbles with the lock and then opens it. Vena introduces me to Angel, a girl in her early twenties. She smiles at me sleepily and then heads back to bed.

Vena crosses the living room and turns left into a short hall with three doors leading off it: bathroom on the right, Vena and Wilfred’s room to the left, second bedroom straight ahead. Vena takes Patrick from me and carries him into her room, where he sleeps in a portacrib. Florence pushes past me into the bedroom straight ahead and turns on the light. It is a small, concrete cube. Most of the space is taken up by a metal bunk bed with a double mattress on the bottom and a single on top. Florence explains that Angel is sleeping on the top bunk with Florence’s baby daughter, Precious. Florence and I will share the bottom bunk.

I am thankful my toiletries are in my carryon backpack. I take my toothbrush into the dark bathroom—no light, evidently— and brush my teeth at the sink. I am thankful, too, to find a toilet as well. Enough light filters in through the high window for me to use it without falling in.

I climb into bed next to Florence. We chat for a few minutes, but jet lag is crashing down on me. I slip into unconsciousness somehow knowing that I dropped off mid-sentence.

I wake in the dark. My pillow smells of sour milk, and I guess that it’s one either Patrick or Precious used. I slip it out from under my head and then lie still, fearful of waking Florence, who breathes deep and slow next to me. The last time I replaced my running watch, I was too cheap to buy one with a light. I regret that now. I have no idea if it is near dawn or not. I pray and pray, pushing away my fears of the unknown, fighting against the slight edge of panic that sets in when I remember that I don’t know when I am going home.

The sky lightens, turning the room gray. When Angel slides over the edge of the top bunk and heads to the kitchen, I get up and slip into the bathroom. Last night Wilfred told me he and I would head out early this morning, and I don’t know what “early” means. I can see the bathroom now. There is no mirror. An empty light socket hangs above the sink. Next to the toilet is a sunken, tiled area for bathing. The rest of the floors in the house are gray concrete. Both the sink and bathing area have hot and cold knobs but only the cold produces water. The bathing area has a lower spigot, which works, and an upper showerhead, which does not. I run water into a round, pink, plastic basin about the size of a kitty litter pan and give myself a bucket bath with a wet wipe. I shiver in the cool morning air, but it still feels good to freshen up—until I pull on the same cargo pants and t-shirt I put on at home three days before. I put in my contacts, though my eyes already feel gritty. I brought my early 1990s glasses with me, but I hope I don’t have to resort to them.

I am surprised to see a refrigerator in the kitchen, but it doesn’t really work. It is so warm ants live in it. Vena uses it simply to keep boiled water and juices slightly below room temperature. The outside wall of the kitchen has a door and a sink to the right of it. A barred window just above the sink looks out on the tall concrete wall that surrounds this small apartment complex. I notice broken glass bottles top the wall. The door is open. I step through it onto the back stoop and find Angel squatting next to a charcoal fire in a small, legged, metal pot. She smiles up at me. Her eyes are still sleepy.

“The water will be boiled for tea soon,” she says.

I smile back. “I’m in no hurry, but thank you.” I step back inside and see Wilfred heading into the bathroom. I sneak into the bedroom and quietly pack a small bag for the day. I am not sure what to do with all my hundred dollar bills. I put one in my daypack and shove the others into a notebook inside the bag I will leave here. I feel nervous with so much cash.

Angel has carried a tray with bread, Blue Band (the bright yellow African equivalent of margarine), and tea fixings into the front room, which functions as both living and dining room. With the gray concrete floors, whitewashed walls, and ivory couch cushions, the only spots of color are the wedding pictures of Wilfred and beautiful, resplendent Vena that hang on the walls. Wilfred joins me in a few minutes. We greet each other and then have nothing else to say. Finally I ask, “Is $100 enough for today or should I get more?”

He stares into the air above his head, then nods. “Today let’s exchange only a hundred.”

We eat quietly for a few more minutes, and then Wilfred abruptly stands up, rubbing his long, thin hands together. “We must go. There is much to do.”

I slurp down the last of my tea and grab my bag. I don’t get the glimpse of Patrick I was hoping for. I don’t even see Angel.

Outside I open the metal gate for Wilfred to drive the car through. In the daylight I see their apartment is near the bottom of a valley between two hills. Downhill, the land is green and vibrant. Uphill is very different. The few trees are surrounded by corrugated tin roofs so close together they resemble a scuffed-silver quilt. We drive straight up on a red dirt lane divided with ruts so deep Wilfred has to weave the car to make his way uphill. Houses and small shops made from handmade red bricks crowd the road. Some, like Wilfred and Vena’s apartment, have a skim of concrete over the bricks. Near the top of the hill, there are more shops and fewer houses. I see a barber already at work and women selling fruits, vegetables and hardboiled eggs, all stacked in pyramids. I sniff the oily smell of chappatis before I see them, sizzling on a griddle at a shop we pass. At one food stand a woman sells milk in thin plastic bags, like the ones I put my produce in at grocery stores in the States.

A main road, mostly paved, runs along the top of the hill. More things to buy here. Chickens in cages. Pigs in stick corrals. Piles of couches and chairs—the men who made them are hard at work on another one, stretching padding and cloth over a wooden frame. A metalworker flattens the end of a red-hot poker before attaching it to a section of iron fence. I saw all this during my trip last year, but it amazes me again. All these industries right here in the open for everyone to see, and all made by hand, not a piece of complex machinery in sight.

Wilfred turns right, and soon we are in the countryside. Shops and houses still line the road, but rolling fields, some planted with crops, others filled with scrubby grass and dotted with trees, stretch beyond them. I have been busy watching the scenery, but now the silence seems to stretch between us. I have no idea where we are going, who we are meeting, nothing. I ask, “What are we doing today?”

He tells me we have to get such-and-such form from one particular official, another kind of form from a different official; the list goes on. He tells me the names of the forms and the titles of the officials, and I say, “Ok,” even though I don’t really understand. We enter a town and Wilfred pulls off the road. “This is where I bank,” he tells me, gesturing at a two-story building covered in uniform white tiles. It stands out, more modern than the other buildings on the street.

I hand him the hundred-dollar bill and wait in the car while he exchanges it. The street is still quiet. Few people are out. Is Patrick even up yet? He was out so late the night before, he is certain to be tired. What is he like when he’s tired?

When Wilfred returns, he gives me a wad of Ugandan shillings and tells me to check it. The exchange rate is in favor of the dollar right now. Even changed at a rural bank branch, my hundred-dollar bill is worth more than 200,000 shillings.

A few miles outside of the town, we pull onto a dusty dirt road, follow it until it ends at a small, red-brick building (these bricks, too, were made by hand, uniform, but not perfect) surrounded by people. Wilfred parks underneath a tall, spreading tree a distance from the building, and I begin to get out. “No,” he says. “You stay here.” He steps out, then sticks his head back in. “I will need some money for this.”

“Okay.” I pull out the wad of cash. A look crosses his face and I lower my hands so they cannot be seen through the windshield. He nods in approval. “How much?” I ask.

He looks up for a moment, then back at me. “Forty thousand should do it.” I peel off two 20,000 notes and hand them over. He tucks them into his front pocket.

He winds through the colorful mix of people squatting in the shady area near the building and stops in front of a tall, solid man wearing a dress shirt and slacks who stands in the open doorway. I cannot hear what they are saying, but Wilfred’s gestures look as if he is trying to convince the man of something. Finally they step inside.

The building has another door farther down, and a policeman steps out of this one. He is dressed in the standard creased khaki uniform and shiny black combat boots. He carries an AK-47 in his hand. He motions behind him for someone to follow, and a line of men shuffles into view, each one holding his hands together. Tied? Handcuffs? I cannot tell from this distance. They wear loose shirts and pants, like hospital scrubs or prison garb, but gray, like the color has been worn out from wash upon wash. He orders them to stop; then he stalks up and down their line, waving his AK-47 in the air and shouting. The men hang their heads. The people squatting in the shade don’t seem concerned by the policeman or line of men, but that doesn’t reassure me. They might be still simply so they don’t draw attention to themselves. My muscles tighten as I watch the big gun slash back and forth in the policeman’s hand.

I don’t even notice Wilfred coming back to the car until he opens the door. I jump.

He is smiling. “Okay, let’s go.” He turns the car around. A cloud of dust rises behind us.

“Did you get what you needed?” I ask him. I want to ask about the prisoners but am uncertain. The line between curiosity and judgment is so, so thin.

He nods and holds up a piece of paper.

“Oh, was there a fee for the document?”

His eyebrows wrinkle. “Hmm,” he says and then pauses. “Well, we call it ’appreciation.’”

“Like a bribe?”

He shakes his head. “No, no. It is not really a bribe.” He explains that this is an accepted practice. “These officials don’t make very much in their positions, so the ‘appreciation’ is almost like part of their salary.” I understand, but my inner Western-world voice shouts, “That’s wrong!” I shut it down. It is so easy—though still wrong—for Westerners to feel superior in developing countries. Lord, please, please make me aware of this.

Wilfred tells me to stay in the car at the next stop, too. “If they see you, a muzungu, they will expect more appreciation.” I hand over another 20,000 and wish my skin were darker, though that is not really the issue. I’ve heard Ugandans refer to an African-American as a muzungu.

As we drive to yet another “meeting,” I ask Wilfred, “So we need all these documents for the adoption?”

A funny expression crosses his face, and he doesn’t answer right away. “Well, they are for Mercy. If Mercy’s papers are not in order, it makes the adoption harder.” It is not really an answer. It is more of a question.

I nod. “That makes sense. In a way, these are for the adoption.”

His shoulders relax.

I am thankful for his honesty. Is this why he has seemed so distant? Was he afraid I would be angered that these things weren’t taken care of already? Afraid I would question how the money we have been sending him has been spent?

At the next stop Wilfred parks as far from the building as he can. He turns to me. “Stay down.” I recline my seat and lie back. “I will need 60,000 this time,” he says. I raise my eyebrows, and he nods solemnly. This first hundred dollars is not going very far. Will all these “meetings” work? Did I bring enough money? God, I want to take Patrick home. Soon.

Peering over the edge of the window, I watch Wilfred saunter to the building. I close my eyes and try to sleep but can’t. My eyes pop open just in time to see Wilfred walk out of the building, followed by a small, stocky woman dressed in a khaki skirt and jacket whose hands are on her hips. She wags one index finger at Wilfred. Then she turns and marches away.
Wilfred comes back to the car. I stay down until he pulls into the street. “Well?” I ask.

He shakes his head and shows me the document he wanted the lady to sign. “She doesn’t like this wording.” He points to one line on the page. “She said if I get it fixed, she will sign it, but it won’t be free.”

The document must be official, but there is no seal, letterhead or signature. You’re in Africa, I tell myself. Improvise. Go for it. “Can’t I just retype it?” I ask him. “You have your laptop here.”

Wilfred shakes his head. “I don’t have a way to save it so I can print it.”

I have a flash drive in my daypack and tell him this. His face brightens. “Can you type fast?”

I nod. He parks and hands me his laptop, a present from another of his U.S. friends. I follow the format of the original document—it seems to state that Mercy is fulfilling its mission—and type until I get to the problematic wording, something about Mercy House’s system for accepting children. “What should it say?”

We play around with several options until we land on one Wilfred thinks will work. It is less specific than the original language. I wonder if the woman official—I see from the document her title is Family and Child Services Agent—wants this changed so she is less responsible. I save the document to my flash and give it to Wilfred. He drives to a stationary shop—just a tiny room with an old computer, printer and copier—and prints the document. When he returns, he hands me the flash drive. I have two with me on this trip. When we get back to the house, I will clear one of them and give it to him.

This time Wilfred is able to complete the deal. As we drive out of town, he suddenly swings the car off the road. “Lunch!” he declares. “You must be hungry.”

Regular meals are a much lower priority here, but Wilfred also strikes me as one who forgets to eat when he’s busy. I had forgotten, too, but when he says “lunch,” I realize it’s been nearly nine hours since we’ve eaten. I wonder how much longer it will be before I can go “home” and see Patrick. Wilfred reaches behind our seats and finds two empty glass bottles (in most stores in Uganda, you have to return a glass bottle for each one you purchase), and I hand him a bill. A couple minutes later he returns with chappatis (they resemble a fried pancake but are not sweet) and soft drinks. He hands me the Fanta orange, and I suck on the straw. It tastes so good. Wilfred pulls back onto the road and eats as he drives.

At a large two-story building in the middle of nowhere, Wilfred gets out and waves at a big man and a small woman. They wave back. Then Wilfred sticks his head back into the car. “You can get out here.” No bribe must be involved. I am glad to get out of the car, glad to meet new people, but my heart beats faster than usual. I have no idea who this man and woman are, if I am supposed to impressing them or not. I shake hands with them, but the woman pulls me in for a hug. “This is Liz,” says Wilfred. “She is the chief information officer for our district, and she is on the board for Mercy.” He is clearly proud of the association. Wilfred steps away with the man, and Liz asks me how I am doing. She is a small woman, maybe even a couple inches shorter than I am, but she is wearing business clothes, heels, a navy skirt, a nice blouse and she carries herself with a kind of confidence I have seen in few other African women. I am very conscious of my green cargo pants, my rumpled shirt. “I am so sorry for my appearance. My bags did not make it.”

She waves it off, and we chat about the adoption and Mercy House. “I want Mercy to be recognized by the government,” she says. “They are doing good work there, but everything is not in order.”

It makes me want to visit an orphanage that does have everything in order. Do they turn children away when they have no more beds? Wilfred will not do that, a wonderful thing, but also a difficulty. Too many children means Mercy is unable to follow guidelines about the separation of children into age group sleeping areas and caregiver/child ratios. Though How do I get Patrick home? sits at the base of my skull like a dull headache, never quite going away, I find Liz’s work with orphanages fascinating, and I am distracted for a few minutes.

Wilfred and the man return. The man says, “Liz, she looks like you, the way she stands and talks!” Wilfred agrees, and both Liz and I laugh, for she is dark as fine chocolate, and I am Kansas-winter white. The man and Liz have to leave, but Liz grabs my hands and tells Wilfred to stop by her house this evening. She and Wilfred need to talk about the probation officer’s report for the adoption, and she wants me to see her garden. I feel like I have made a friend.

We make two more stops before going to Liz’s house, so I have no idea if she lives close to where she works or not. The wall surrounding her house and yard is tall, clearly meant to keep intruders out, but the gate is plain and wooden, not metal. Her home, too, is made of the same red bricks, but it is bigger than most in her neighborhood and shows signs of constant care. Still in her business attire, Liz welcomes us at the door of the home she shares with two girls about 12 and 13 years of age. The introductions are so quick I do not catch the details. One of them may be a niece, the other her daughter. She does not mention a husband. We chat in the living room for a few minutes. The walls and floors have not been skimmed with concrete, so dust coats the bricks, and the ceilings are open to the corrugated tin roof that rises above. But it is a spacious home and obviously a work in progress. Liz tells me some of her plans for the house and leads me to her pride and joy, the garden, which covers most of the large yard and flourishes with vegetables and herbs. She gives me cabbage, some corn, a pumpkin, and fresh thyme to take back to Vena. Then we return to the living room, where she and Wilfred get down to business, lapsing into Lugandan after a few minutes.

I watch them as they talk. Wilfred obviously respects Liz’s guidance, and she carries herself with authority, reminding me of an American businesswoman, even as she sits in her living room in bare feet. It is nearly impossible for a woman to rise to a position of real influence in Uganda, and I want to know Liz’s story.

It is late by the time we get home, and I am surprised but glad to find Patrick still up. He is bright eyed and energetic, but I only have a few minutes with him. Vena, Florence, and Angel have held dinner for us, and they shoo Patrick and Precious to the corner where the two of them share their food out of a common bowl. We eat a delicious vegetable broth over potatoes (they call them “Irish” here) and drink boiled water. Then it is straight to bed for everyone. Wilfred and I have another early start in the morning.